Ironman McCrystal weathers the storm to go the distance
Bryan McCrystal isn't referring to the 26.2-mile run that followed the 112-mile bike ride when he declares: "It was horrendous."
Instead, he is describing the weather, the almost comical concoction of wind and rain that battered him - and a few thousand others - at the Ironman Ireland triathlon on Sunday.
So harsh, so very Irish, that it wasn't actually a triathlon, but a duathlon, organisers in Youghal were forced into cancelling the opening 2.4-mile swim leg due to safety risks. Not that it made it any easier, with the bike course taking in a 21 per cent incline, so steep and sadistic that many participants had to walk.
"The second time you're going up on tired legs and the body is starting to break a bit," says McCrystal. "Thankfully I was okay…just about."
On a day when nothing was assured, the 38-year-old Louthman nearly pulled off a massive upset, putting Britain's two-time Olympic gold medallist Alistair Brownlee to the sword for much of the race. To be in that position was a victory in itself for McCrystal, who works full-time at his family's jewellers in Dundalk and considers triathlon "more of a pastime".
A former professional footballer, he spent three years at Leeds United in his teens before returning home to play for Dundalk, Newry City and Dungannon Swifts. But in 2007 McCrystal had to hang up his boots at the age of 26, plagued by knee pain.
Within weeks, though, he had signed up to run the Dublin Marathon - a way to fill the void left behind by soccer? "Yeah, I suppose it is," he admits. "I am competitive within myself, and anything I do I want to be the best at it."
As fun as that marathon was, he wasn't a fan of "just running all the time" and when his sister introduced him to the triathlon, it proved a perfect fit.
Over the years he became Ireland's leading Ironman triathlete, repeatedly lowering the Irish long-distance record, most recently to 8:07:37. "Winning is obviously good but I'm more competitive with myself than anyone else," he says.
A father of two, finding time for training isn't easy. While Brownlee typically logs 35 hours of training each week, McCrystal does about half that. "It's just chipping away and working to a schedule," he says. "I'm not a full-time athlete like Alistair so I'm happy doing what I'm doing."
The bike was always going to be his big chance, given he has vast experience at UCI Continental level and his stage wins in Rás Mumhan and the Tour of Ulster to his name. He put the boot down 60 miles into the race and laced up his running shoes with a big lead.
"All you can do is concentrate on yourself in a marathon, stick to what your training suggests you can run and whatever happens, happens," he says. "It's a testament to how strong a guy [Brownlee] is that he was able to come through."
McCrystal was just four miles from the finish when Brownlee ran him down, the two waging war against their own bodies and each other. "He was struggling himself, he was definitely hurting," says McCrystal. "The distance will get any man at that stage. It's the old saying: whoever slows down the least will win."
In what was Brownlee's Ironman debut, the Briton hit the line a worthy champion in 7:49:20 with McCrystal second in 7:51:19. "I was happy with that. I never blew up or had a meltdown, my pace just gradually slowed down - I was hurting a lot."
How to follow that up? Turns out, McCrystal could be back in action at Sunday's national midde-distance championships - 1.9km swim, 90km bike, 21.1km run - in Donegal, but he plans to first assess the damage from last weekend. Either way, it won't be long before he's back out there, doing what he does best.
"I just like competing and getting the best out of myself," he says. "If I cross that line knowing I did that, regardless of whether I'm beaten, I'm happy."